Rediscovering Rumphius

A 17th-Century Masterpiece, The Ambonese Herbal, to Appear for the First Time in English

Beekman would be quick to say that his own tribulations pale beside those of his subject. Rumphius started out with the obvious disadvantage of being at the opposite end of the Earth from the centers of scientific discourse. He managed to obtain permission from the Heeren XVII, the governing board of the Dutch East India Company, to have scientific books sent out on company ships. But then in 1670, at the age of 42, Rumphius was struck blind, probably from glaucoma. He carried on with his work, depending on family and staff to read to him and take dictation.

A few years later an earthquake hit Ambon, and both his wife, Susanna, and a daughter died beneath a collapsed wall. A witness recorded the terrible spectacle of the blind man sobbing beside their bodies. Rumphius named a white orchid Flos susannae “in memory of her who during her life was my first mate and helpmeet when searching for herbs and plants, and who showed me this flower also.” (Happily, her name has survived in modern taxonomy as Pecteilis susannae.)

This was by no means the end of his misfortunes. In 1687 a fire ripped through the island, destroying his library and all the original drawings Rumphius and his assistants had made over more than 30 years. He was at least able to save his text. Undaunted, he commissioned new drawings and continued to work for another five years, finally sending the first half of his Herbal off to Amsterdam on a ship with the inauspicious name Waterland, which sank with its entire cargo. But by extraordinary good luck (not something with which Rumphius was otherwise familiar), the governor-general in Batavia, also a naturalist, had commissioned a copy before sending the Herbal onward. So Rumphius was able to complete his manuscript and ship it to Amsterdam intact in 1696.

Even then he did not get the triumphant reception he surely deserved. The Heeren XVII wielded absolute power over company employees, and it refused to allow publication, probably because this encyclopedia of the flora of the East Indies seemed as if it might be too useful to rival European powers. The Herbal would remain in the company archives for another 45 years, before a consortium of publishers finally brought it into print beginning in 1741.  

But the real tragedy of Rumphius’ life lay elsewhere, according to Beekman, and it resulted from the Dutch mania for collecting shells. In the late 1660s, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was touring the cultural centers of Europe, including the Netherlands, where he admired the tropical shells in the curiosity cabinets of the leading collectors. Many of those collectors were also powerful figures in the Dutch East India Company. The shared interest in collecting shells and other precious objects was a tool for cementing relationships otherwise based only on commerce, according to Beekman. “Capitalism subsidized curiosity in a reciprocal relationship that enhanced and dignified both.” So when Cosimo set out to develop a shell collection of his own, these collectors were only too happy to help, and Rumphius became their hapless victim.  

In 1682 Rumphius sold Cosimo the best part of his shell collection, 360 specimens gathered over a period of 28 years, “what for him must have been souvenirs in the most literal sense: memorials of the life” snuffed out by blindness and the loss of his wife and daughter. “Giving things away was not the problem,” Beekman continues. “What vexed Rumphius was the compulsion, backed by some kind of high-pressure method, to relinquish part of his life to a stranger for money.” It was “a clash of Western capitalistic imperatives and a stubborn Indonesian metaphysic.” The note Rumphius sent to Cosimo, along with his shells, began in the required social etiquette of good wishes and then slid inexorably into anger and regret: “May the Lord … favor the passage of these objects and may they arrive safely. … so that no damage will be done to a treasure which I gathered over many years with much cost and labor and which, in the future, it will be impossible to acquire again, especially since I am now old and blind.”  

Rumphius had come to subscribe to the Indonesian ethic that objects could have special power only if one has found them oneself or received them as gifts, not when “bought with money.” He disdained the “covetousness and pomp” common among the wealthy collectors who proudly showed off their curiosity cabinets back in Europe. Not only had he been left bereft of his caritates, but in the Indonesian scheme of things, the shells themselves had been deprived of their power by being sold.  

The experience, at least, “showed him a way to get his words in print,” says Beekman. He would appeal directly to the European collecting appetite and present his caritates as specimens in The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet. It was a Faustian bargain, and it worked. Despite the slow and secretive practices of the Dutch East India Company, the book moved relatively quickly into print, appearing in 1705.  

But in Ambon, Rumphius had died three years earlier, at the age of 74, his great works still unpublished.

Shortly before his own death in 2008, Beekman sent off a couple of typewritten notes. One was to Jean Black at Yale, regretting some mistakes he had been unable to correct. “No longer have any strength. Endgame. Hospice time. Soon I’ll be posthumous.”

The other was to one of the large 
circle of financial and intellectual supporters who had made his work on The Ambonese Herbal possible. “Would that Rumphius were alive,” he wrote, “to know that some 300 years after his death, his magnum opus will finally be available in English. Each one of us, in our own fashion, has done our part. Long after we are gone (and I am not too sure that I will see it in print, bound, in a slip case, bedazzling people. …) this Ambonese Herbal will live on.”

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